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Before I get to my reservations with the execution, let me start by saying that Valerie Armstrong’s basic concept for AMC’s Kevin Can F**k Himself is possibly my favorite TV series premise in years.
For those who have forgotten, back in 2016, Kevin James starred in a sub-mediocre multicam sitcom called Kevin Can Wait, an instantly dated show about a newly retired, self-absorbed man-child married to the oft-exasperated Donna (Erinn Hayes). Hayes, an extremely talented comic actress wasted as the arms-folded wet blanket, was not to blame for Kevin Can Wait being bad. But she became the scapegoat, and the series unceremoniously killed her character off between seasons. Hayes deserved better. Donna deserved better. Did she (or they), perhaps, deserve revenge?
Kevin Can F**k Himself
Airdate: 9 p.m. Sunday, June 20 (AMC)
Cast: Annie Murphy, Eric Petersen, Mary Hollis Inboden, Alex Bonifer, Raymond Lee, Brian Howe
Creator: Valerie Armstrong
Cut to Kevin Can F**k Himself, which at first looks like a dated multicam about self-absorbed man-child Kevin (Eric Petersen), constantly getting into misadventures with his equally juvenile neighbor and friend Neil (Alex Bonifer) and Neil’s grouchy sister, Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden). The only person unamused by the shenanigans is Kevin’s wife, Allison (Annie Murphy).
Allison has a secret: When she leaves the overlit domestic sphere populated by her needy husband, her world changes dramatically. The series becomes a gritty, shadow-filled single-cam. Allison’s artificial smile melts away, and we see the dissatisfaction of a woman who has dreams of her own but, instead, has to keep biting her tongue and looking the other way as her husband’s various schemes and harebrained ideas leave them stuck in a blue-collar hole in a nearly colorless Worcester, Massachusetts.
I love the idea of a show that literally exposes the quiet desperation of the sitcom-wife archetype, as well as revealing how borderline-sociopathic so many sitcom husbands have been over the years. Like WandaVision, Kevin Can F**k Himself is a show that requires a certain knowledge of the conventions of the genre and the way that women have sometimes been trapped in thankless supporting roles and TV marriages that would be toxic and ill-suited, at best, if we ever saw them in real life — and more likely certifiably abusive.
With Oz Rodriguez (AP Bio), carving out a place as one of TV’s most visually innovative comedy directors and setting the early template, Kevin Can F**k Himself will be initially irresistible to aficionados of the traditional sitcom form; the show layers in amusement if you’re the sort of viewer interested in the timing of audience laughter or the use of versatile domestic sets that almost never reflect actual lower-income living conditions.
The series has a key and tremendous asset in Murphy, perhaps the breakout among breakouts from Schitt’s Creek. She’s exactly the sort of young actress broadcast networks and uninspired casting directors have traditionally thought should be grateful with the chance to play a lead role — however lacking in interiority — in a potentially long-running sitcom. She nails the brittle tenuousness of the sitcom wife’s default “Sigh, that’s my Kevin!” resignation and, as the story takes Allison into a more dramatic place, her ever-diminishing innocence is completely sympathetic. Of the Schitt’s Creek stars, Murphy’s future would have been the one I was most unsure of — with Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara coming in as icons and Dan Levy boasting writing-directing chops — but this cements her likability and depth.
The starting point for problems, without question, is the decision to make the show an hourlong. Allison is trapped, consciously or not, in a bad multicam sitcom, and I understand the desire in the first episode or two to establish that sitcom simply for contrast. By the third and fourth episodes sent to critics, though, I began to resent that we, as viewers, are trapped watching that same bad sitcom even when Allison isn’t onscreen. In the fourth episode, we watch nearly an entire episode’s worth of Kevin’s plot to start an escape room in the family basement; acknowledging that it’s an uncanny reproduction of the sort of show that would have gotten five seasons on CBS in the ’90s, bad is bad, and anybody who knows the genre at all won’t need nearly as much convincing about Kevin’s malignant sloth as the show thinks we do. The more time we spend with that bad sitcom, the harder it is to tell when Petersen and Bonifer are expertly reproducing bad performances or just giving bad performances.
I’m not sure that Kevin Can F**k Himself is clearly enough aware that when Allison breaks out of the formal clichés of the multicam format, she’s simply moved into a different set of visual and narrative clichés. The show seems to want us to think that outside of the multicam, Allison is in the “real” world, but it’s actually more like she’s jumped format to a SMILF or Wayne or other Sundance Lab-friendly “indie” comedy of your choice. There’s nothing authentic there either, though I can almost believe that the series’ inconsistent application of Central Mass accents points to some awareness that it’s all a construct. Maybe that will come later? I’m similarly willing to wait a little on more rudimentary questions like whether one of Annie’s two existences is a hallucination or mental illness.
Maybe “later” will also be when we get a better sense of exactly what Kevin Can F**k Himself is satirizing, who the target of the joke is. Yes, “bad sitcoms.” I get that. And yes, “one-dimensional sitcom wives and the regressive man-children who repress them.” Sure. But to what end? There are Kevins in the real world, and Allisons, but the show doesn’t want to be satirizing them, so the joke has to be directed more consciously at the Hollywood system that breeds bad shows, the advertisers that keep the shows afloat and even the audiences that make them hits. Why do we crave that kind of storytelling in the first place?
Sure, that sounds pretty meta, but did you read the description of the show? Kevin Can F**k Himself isn’t quite able to become as funny or as dramatic as it should be, and part of the reason for that stems from not knowing if it’s punching up, punching down or punching at all.
Four episodes for a show like this may prove not enough for a full evaluation. The pilot is a promising start. The next two episodes, whether they’re focusing on the bad multicam or Allison’s budding friendship with former flame Sam (Raymond Lee), feel flat. The fourth episode begins steering the show toward something darker and more potent, and establishes Inboden as a capable foil for Murphy — a reminder that the snarky, just-one-of-the-guys gal is a multicam cliche of its own. Kevin Can F**k himself isn’t one of those shows that has a great hook, but no potential beyond that. There’s a series here. I’m just not sure if it’s worthy of the premise.
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